Updated: Oct 19, 2020
The Henry Grace à Dieu (Henry Grace of God) or 'Great Harry' set sail as a battleship from Woolwich Dockyard near Greenwich in the year 1514. Woolwich, alongside Deptford, was where naval shipbuilding on the Thames had begun to gather pace during Henry's reign.(1) Not only does this represent a huge shift in naval strategy during the Tudor period, but it also marks Henry VIII's interest in Greenwich as a base to advance the constuction of the largest warships in Britain.
Illustration of the Henry Grace à Dieu from the Anthony roll, circa 1546. (2)
Once it was acknowledged that existing dockyards did not have the suitable 'infastructure' for a ship as large as Henry Grace à Dieu, the building of the ship commenced in Woolwich in 1512. (3) King Henry VIII ensured that the craftsmenship of the ship would surpass that of its competitors, sponsoring an upgrade of the armed weapons to include 20 bronze cannons which could shatter enemy ships with a devastating "broadside", but focusing particularly on making the ship a 'royal showpiece.' (4) For Henry VIII the opulence of a warship was just as important as its function. The archive of Greenwich's National Maritime Museum have a number of available documents that illustrate the planning that went into building the ship. Among a plethora of documents is a 1514 warrant, sent by the king to Sir Andrew Windsor - with expectation that he would provide cloth for the "hallowing" (blessing) of the Henry Grace à Dieu. On its completion the ship had the capacity to carry '400 soldiers, 260 sailors, and 40 gunners,' as well as looking the part. (5)
It is undoubtly easy to appreciate the Henry Grace à Dieu's impressive size, at over 1400 tons she was the biggest ship of Tudor times, but her peformance as a naval ship left much to be desired. The ship had been initially used for diplomatic affairs and carried the king for a conference meeting with Francis I of France in 1520. (6) This is hardly the kind of action most think of when picturing a warship at sea. However, the ship eventually found its peak moment of action in the battle of Solent in 1543 against the French navy.
The cowdray engraving of the battle of Solent, circa 1545. (7)
It is important to note that the dockyards in Woolwich and Deptford did not only serve the purpose of offering a new location to construct ships of an unparalleled size. It was also conveniently close to King Henry VIII's palace in Greenwich, known as the The Palace of Placentia which later became the 'primary royal palace', Henry VIII's main residence. (8) No trace of the palace can be found in Greenwich today, since King Charles II ordered the demolition of the old buildings in the area in 1662. Yet still, at the time, King Henry VIII had been able to keep a watchful eye over the construction of the Henry Grace à Dieu from this very place. (9)
To this day, the spirit of Henry VIII's great warship is felt within the borough of Greenwich. While exploring the maritime hub, near the site of the old dockyard you may stumble across 'The Great Harry', a pub named after the sixteenth century ship and nestled at the centre of Woolwich.
(1) Saint, Andrew. "Woolwich Dockyard area." In survey of London, Volume 48: Woolwich, edited by Peter Guillery. London, 2012.
(2) Anthony Anthony. Henry Grace à Dieu, 1546. Anthony Roll, 1546. Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Roll. Accessed May 5, 2020.
(3) Drake, James. "Henry Grace à Dieu." FamousShips. Last modified, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2020. http://www.famous-ships.info/henry-grace-a-dieu.htm.
(4) Potts, JR. "Henry Grace a Dieu (1514): Carrack Great Ship." MilitaryFactory. Last modified June 22, 2016. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.militaryfactory.com/ships/detail.asp?ship_id=Henry-Grace-a-Dieu-1514.
(5) Article by Tudor Rose."Tudor Ships." AboutBritain. Accessed May 1, 2020. http://www.aboutbritain.com/articles/tudor-ships.asp.
(6) Potts,"Henry Grace a Dieu (1514)."
(7) Basire, James. The cowdray engraving of the battle, 1545. Engraving, 1778. Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Solent. Accessed May 5, 2020.
(8) Johnson, Ben. "The Palace of Placenta, Greenwich."HistoricUK. Accessed May 1, 2020.
(9) Drake,"Henry Grace à Dieu."